The Online Magazine
of Motion Picture
and Television
Music Appreciation
Film Score Monthly Subscribe Now!
film score daily 

THE NEW AGE, PART TWO:

LIFE AFTER JERRY AND ELMER: WHO WILL BE THE NEXT TITANS?

By Scott Bettencourt

Part One of this series can be accessed on the website.

The summer of 2004 saw the passing on of the last of the great Golden Age composers, David Raksin, as well as the loss of two greats of the so-called Silver Age, Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein, who managed to keep creating first-rate film scores until practically the very end of their lives. Many other Silver Age greats are gone or retired; Williams continues to dominate film music and probably will do so until he retires, while these days Morricone seems to be scoring films for practically every country except the United States, and Shire and Schifrin work only occasionally.

The rest of the current composers should be classified as part of a third age: perhaps it could be called the Digital Age, for most of their careers have taken place during the era where scores are both recorded digitally and released on digital media (CDs and occasionally DVDs). Just as John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, John Barry, Alex North, Georges Delerue and Ennio Morricone can be ranked at the top of the Silver Age and Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman and Max Steiner are among the top of the Golden Age, it might be fun to speculate on who'll be the best remembered of this yet to be named age.


I have come up with seven principal criteria for defining what makes a composer a perennial favorite:

FILMS: For a composer's career to have legs, they have to have scored films that people are still watching years later -- think about the oeuvres of Herrmann (Citizen Kane, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, Taxi Driver) or Goldsmith (Patton, Chinatown, Alien, Rudy), or particularly Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. Schindler's List).

TRANSCENDENCE: In this context, I mean music that transcends the crappy film it was written for. Goldsmith was the master of transcending an unsuitable film -- that he could write such delightful scores for the likes of Damnation Alley, The Cassandra Crossing and The Swarm is only one element of his genius -- but all of the great composers have this ability; even as picky a composer as John Williams has films like Heartbeeps and Monsignor in his filmography, and for those largely forgotten flops he composed scores that still give a listener pleasure decades later.

VOICE: A principal element of a composer's oeuvre that makes a collector want to buy his albums religiously is their voice, the distinctive sound they bring to their music. Some composers like Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone began their careers with a striking and fresh voice that they retained throughout their work. Jerry Goldsmith may have been influenced by greats like Alex North and Bernard Herrmann, and John Williams's work shows echoes of Andre Previn, Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, but both composers managed to develop their own particular sound which transcended their influences.

THEMES: Though in film music melodic skill is ultimately less important than dramatic skill, it's unquestionably a big help in ensuring a lasting career. Certainly the classic status of themes like "Tara's Theme," "A Summer Place" and "Now, Voyager" have helped make Max Steiner's work immortal even as the contemporary film music sensibility has moved away from his lush, through-composed style. Of all film composers, especially those not best known as songwriters, John Williams has probably written the greatest number of well remembered themes, including Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters, Superman, Darth Vader's Theme, The Raiders March, E.T., and Jurassic Park.

LONGEVITY: One thing that makes a film composer's output truly a career and not just a handful of scores is longevity -- not so much a long life (though of course that does help) but being able to get major scoring jobs (and write memorable scores) over a long period of time. Bernard Herrmann started his career in 1941 with Citizen Kane and finished it with Taxi Driver 35 years later. Goldsmith scored his first film in 1956, earned his first Best Score nomination in 1962, and had his final score released at the end of 2003, a few months before his 75th birthday.

VARIETY: In a way, Golden Age composers had an advantage over contemporary composers. Though early Hollywood's output covered a wide variety of genres, from the lightest of comedies to the heaviest of literary and historical prestige projects, musically they all tended to be within a basic symphonic range. These days, a composer has a better chance of thriving if he can work in a modern-pop vein as well as in a classical style -- Miklos Rosza was never expected to write rock, or techno, or ambient music, or compose a fully electronic score.

GENRE: The most lastingly popular film composers tend to be ones who work frequently in "genre" films -- "genre" actually means any individual type of film, but in this case I mean action, science-fiction, horror and fantasy. These genres tend to require particularly vivid and conspicuous scoring, and it certainly helps that film music fans are frequently action and sci-fi/horror/fantasy fans as well. (In the Golden Age, big budget sci-fi and fantasy films were uncommon -- the closest equivalent would be Biblical epics which similarly required a vivid musical imagination, forthright emotion and even unusual orchestrations)

In this column we will look at two composers who seem, based on these criteria, to be among the most plausible choices to be seen as the most popular of our time in decades to come.


1. DANNY ELFMAN

FILMS: While many disreputable films of the 1980s -- John Hughes' high school comedies, the lesser Amblin' output such as The Goonies -- have an inexplicable cult following today, the early Tim Burton films scored by Elfman have earned their continued popularity. Though Batman is still a stylish but incoherent mess, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice have lost none of their humor or imagination. Edward Scissorhands was only a modest hit at the time of its release but Johnny Depp's star power has soared greatly since, and the score is ever-popular and widely imitated (and the film has even inspired a brand new ballet from star choreographer Matthew Bourne, utilizing Elfman's music). Good Will Hunting was an immensely popular film at the time of its release and may retain its popularity (though the notion of Ben Affleck winning an Original Screenplay Oscar is likely to puzzle future generations). The Nightmare Before Christmas, like Scissorhands only a modest success at the time of release, has gained a deservedly huge following in the 13 years since its release, and Elfman's music is an inextricable element of its success.

TRANSCENDENCE: Elfman had a doubly daunting challenge on Tim Burton's 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes -- following up one of Jerry Goldsmith's masterpieces, a score that helped change the sound of film music in the late 1960s, and writing a fresh and exciting score for a slick but uninspired rehash of a sci-fi classic. Though Elfman's score unsurprisingly has so far failed to attain the classic status of the Goldsmith work, it's a fresh and imaginative score that's one of the few redeemable elements of its film, one of those high grossing movies that no one seemed to genuinely like.

VOICE: Elfman has arguably the most distinctive voice in film music today, quirky and lighthearted but capable of beauty and great emotional force (the cue "Ginger Snaps" from Black Beauty is an almost unbearable portrait of emotional distress, and for a scene about a horse, no less). Even though his first major score, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, showed noticeable influences of Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann (two admitted Elfman favorites), it also demonstrated his own strong and distinctive sensibility, and his score for Batman helped define the sound of contemporary superhero films (which these days seems like every second film released).

THEMES: As befitting a composer whose background is in songwriting (Oingo Boingo), Elfman is a first-rate melodist. Though some of his finest melodies (especially Black Beauty) have yet to attain the classic status they deserve, he has composed many fairly indelible themes, both for the big screen (Pee-Wee, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Sciossorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Men in Black) and the small (The Simpsons, Tales from the Crypt, Desperate Housewives).

LONGEVITY: Elfman's career as a Hollywood composer has spanned over two decades, and he's maintained his success with almost Williams-esque consistency over that period. Although he remains underappreciated by the Academy's Music Branch (only three nominations: two in 1997 and one in 2003, and none for such memorable scores as Scissorhands, Sommersby or Nightmare), he's never gone long without a mega-hit, and last year's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was one of his highest grossers yet.

VARIETY: With the success of Pee-Wee and Beetlejuice, Elfman might easily have stayed typecast in zany comedy -- he was in no way a predictable choice to score Batman, but Tim Burton's loyalty to his composer won him the job. His brooding score was markedly different in tone but still managed to maintain the Elfman sound, and over his twenty-plus years he's worked in nearly every genre, including urban capers (Dead Presidents), dark comedy (To Die For), period romance (Sommersby), humanist drama (Good Will Hunting), science fiction adventure (Planet of the Apes) and psychological suspense (Delores Claiborne). Actually, it's harder to think of a genre Elfman hasn't worked in...Westerns, maybe (not that they're making so many of them these days).

GENRE: Though he's more adept with lighthearted material than Goldsmith was, Elfman is in many ways the Goldsmith of our time, not only because of his fresh orchestral style and his ability to conceive a score orchestrally and not just melodically, but because of his particular fluency in genre projects. He practically owns the superhero genre (two Batmans, two Spider-Mans, Hulk, Dick Tracy and Darkman), has worked successfully in science-fiction (Planet of the Apes) and has scored monsters both fantastic (Nightbreed, Sleepy Hollow) and human (Red Dragon). His fantasy projects particularly bring out his imagination, with Beetlejuice, Nightmare Before Christmas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride among his strongest works.

CONCLUSION: With his combination of distinctive style, memorable melodies, enduringly popular films, a large number of genre projects, and his consistency of musical voice, Elfman is, in my opinion, the composer of his generation most likely to remain a popular favorite in the decades to come.


2. THOMAS NEWMAN

FILMS: Newman has become the de facto composer for Oscar bait projects, and amongst all his Best Picture nominees of the last 14 years -- Scent of a Woman, The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Erin Brockovich, In the Bedroom -- it's likely that some of them will stay classics (the increasingly beloved Shawshank much more plausibly than Scent of a Woman, which these days is thought of mostly as that "hoo-hah" film that finally won Pacino the Oscar he'd deserved for much better performances). Even some of the failed Oscar bait like Cinderella Man and Jarhead are likely to age well, and as adults often retain a fondness for the hit films of their childhood, Finding Nemo and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events could prove to become perennial family viewing (Nemo more plausibly than Lemony). The Player has retained its critical reputation as one of the best films of the '90s (and one of the best films about Hollywood), while Fried Green Tomatoes has a good chance of remaining a popular favorite.

TRANSCENDENCE: Meet Joe Black, Martin Brest's lavish remake of Death Takes a Holiday, was several years in development and seemed to take even longer to watch (it was in fact 178 minutes, longer than most Kubrick films). With all the years and money he spent on the film, Brest didn't seem to notice that the audience might not care about the last days of an obscenely wealthy man (so wealthy he has an indoor swimming pool...in his Manhattan apartment), or that his Death figure (Brad Pitt with full-on movie star grooming) was eloquent and philosophical one moment and a peanut butter-licking man-child the next. Nevertheless, Newman's score was properly romantic and charming, matching the film's varied tones, and only at the end did it seem to strain a little (but only a little) too hard to fill in the emotional gap left by the director, writers and cast.

VOICE: Newman has one of the most distinctive voices in film music today, so distinctive that the quirky, percussive sound he's used in many of his scores (American Beauty is dominated by it, and it can be heard in other scores like Pay It Forward) has become a cliche, popping up with alarming regularity in other composers' works. Many of today's filmmakers (not just Steven Soderbergh) prefer a less assertive, more ambient sound than the kind of forthright scoring that appeals to collectors, but though Newman is skilled with the laid back approach, when a more direct, melodic approach is required, he is one of the strongest composers today, and his melodies are reliably emotional and distinctive without being syrupy or clichéd.

THEMES: None of Newman's themes have yet to penetrate the public's consciousness to the extent of a classic Williams/Lucas theme like Star Wars or The Raiders March -- probably his most recognizable themes are Six Feet Under and the American Beauty motif. However, as I noted above in the "Voice" section of this discussion, when Newman chooses to use a thematic approach rather than an ambient or rhythmic style, his melodies are amongst the finest in contemporary scoring, with Fried Green Tomatoes, The Player, Scent of a Woman, Little Women, The Shawshank Redemption, Red Corner, The Horse Whisperer, Meet Joe Black, Finding Nemo and Angels in America all benefiting from his memorable themes.

LONGEVITY: Newman has been scoring features for two decades, and he made a reasonably quick transition (seven years) from his early, youth oriented (and hardly prestigious films) like Reckless and Revenge of the Nerds to the adult, Oscar-nominated fare like Fried Green Tomatoes and Scent of a Woman that makes up the bulk of his current oeuvre. Newman is wisely selective about his projects, and (with the exception of Pay It Forward), even the Oscar bait films that fail to win Oscars, like Cinderella Man and Jarhead, are worthy efforts.

VARIETY: Beyond his versatile gifts, Newman's career path itself shows his tremendous variety, from the early days of Revenge of the Nerds and Desperately Seeking Susan to the most earnest of serious Hollywood films like The Horse Whisperer and Cinderella Man. Though even as adventurous a composer as Newman has developed certain traits or ticks -- that American Beauty sound has worn out its welcome -- scores like Jarhead show his efforts to move in new musical directions to suit the demands of the film. Listening to the quirky urban sounds of Susan, one would never have imagined Newman capable of the stirring Americana of Little Women, or the exultant yet tragic romanticism of Oscar and Lucinda.

GENRE: Because his career has been so dominated by high profile, Oscar bait dramas, he's scored fewer of the genre films that tend to make a composer especially popular with film music fans. There have been a scattering of suspense thrillers throughout his career (Whispers in the Dark, Red Corner), a pair of children's fantasies (Nemo, Lemony) and one practically unclassifiable art house supernatural drama (The Rapture).

CONCLUSION: Newman could end up becoming the Alex North of his generation -- a composer's composer, with a wealth of prestigious projects under his belt, but with few of the type of genre films that make a composer perennially popular with collectors.


NEXT TIME: A look at three more A-listers, and how they may fare in the decades to come.

MailBag@filmscoremonthly.com


Past Film Score Daily Articles

Film Score Monthly Home Page
© 1997-2017 Lukas Kendall. All rights reserved.